Feminism Objectifies Women

You’ve heard the term “choice feminism” right? Usually used derisively by a person who is arguing: Just because a woman makes a choice does not make it a feminist choice, we have to be able to examine issues on a systemic rather than individual level, some choices that individual feels are good for them are actually going to be bad for the group as a whole and even bad for that individual when systemic issues are taken into consideration.

Here’s what annoys me about this argument. It always comes from the perspective of a white, cisgendered, currently nondisabled, middle-to-upper-class, heteronormative, and otherwise socially privileged person.

That doesn’t mean that it’s that kind of person saying it: it means that the very idea comes from a very specific perspective, in response to a very specific situation.

And not all of us are in that same situation.

The assumption, when this person says “we have to be able to make some sort of systemic analysis and that will mean some choices have to be wrong” they are almost always assuming some specific things.

* Women have been historically locked in their homes tending their houses and families, and larger society pushes against women’s ability to participate in the workforce, and women should participate in the workforce at the highest level possible.

* Women are oversexualized, and that sexualization takes specific forms, such as high heels, lipstick, makeup, dresses.

* Women are stereotyped as demure and submissive, soft and giving, caring and intuitive.

* Women are forced into roles as family carers, encouraged to have as many children as possible and to be the primary carer to those children, stereotyped as having special natural ability to raise children.

That’s just a few.

Here’s the thing. Everything I just said above about “women”? Isn’t true for women. Rather, it is true for white women. Or cisgendered women. Or nondisabled women. It is not true for women as a class.

Yet we continually operate on the assumption that it is!

But ask some other women, sometime, what their experience has been. Many poor and lower-class women, for example, would gladly tell you that they have never had a whiff of an option to stay home with their children — they’ve been out there washing the rich women’s drawers, or sewing them in the first place, so that they can afford dinner for their family a few days out of the week. Ask a black woman about being a nanny and wet nurse. Ask both of those women, and a few mentally or physically disabled women, about when they had their children taken away from them or weren’t allowed to spend any time with them at all (apart from the time they spent cleaning up the messes of the children of those rich/white/nondisabled women they worked for).

Ask a little black or brown girl in some poor neighborhoods about being expected to be virginal (a concept that depends on whiteness from the very beginning) until her wedding day. She’ll probably laugh at you. She’s been continually harassed, abused and assaulted since age six. She’s portrayed in larger culture as an unsexual unwoman and yet every man who crosses her path sees her as a potent sexual opportunity.

Ask the little girl with developmental disabilities about sex sometime, too. No one ever sees fit to give her any information on the subject. They fight to have her sterilized, or even be forced with serious drugs and surgical interventions to stay in a prepubescent state for the rest of her life, so that no one will ever have to deal with the messy proposition of a menstruating or pregnant r*t*rd girl. And if she does get pregnant, that baby had better be aborted immediately, because she could never, ever be anything but an utter failure of a parent. Sterilization is proposed precisely so that she will never get pregnant even if she is sexually assaulted by carers — precisely because everyone knows that she will be.

Ask the visibly disabled woman about being expected to dress up in skirts and high-heeled shoes. Everybody around her will wince at the thought of her in form-fitting, skin-showing clothing. Because, you know, “women” are oversexualized in that way. Ask her about those super-special parenting powers she supposedly has. Everybody around her will bristle at the thought of her having primary responsibility over a child. Because, you know, “women” are stereotyped as having those super-special powers.

All of these girls and women live very different lives as girls and women. The fact that they are marginalized as girls and women is one thing they share in common. But the ways in which they are marginalized are different!

A white woman is marginalized in a different way than a Latina woman is. And a Latina woman is marginalized in a different way than an indigenous woman! A nondisabled woman is marginalized in a different way than a paraplegic woman is… and a paraplegic woman is marginalized in a different way than a bipolar woman is. An upper-middle-class woman in urban New York is marginalized in a different way than a poor woman in urban New York — and a poor woman in New York is marginalized in a different way than a poor woman in Indiana.

There are different mechanisms of marginalization for different types of people — and the greater your difference from the presumed default person, the more different your type of marginalization looks than the privileged-other-than-gender woman.

And that means that what affects you, how it affects you, what issues are important to you, what is good for you and what is bad for you, is different for different sorts of people.

So we cannot, cannot assume, if we agree that “choice feminism” is misguided (and indeed, I believe that straw-ideology would be misguided — well, surely many people think that way, but that is not usually the argument that is being put forth in these discussions), that high heels, lipstick, being submissive, foregoing paid work to raise children, etc. etc. are clearly problematic under a systemic feminist analysis. Because they might be clearly problematic for one set of women — but they are not clearly problematic for the set of all women.

Actually, sensible shoes and baggy desexualized clothing might be clearly problematic for a different set of women who have been historically deprived of their right to any sexuality. Actually, full-time participation in the paid workforce might be clearly problematic for a different set of women who have already been working outside the home for centuries and have historically been denied the right to raise their own children. Actually, being aggressive and dominating or even merely appearing assertive and self-confident might be clearly problematic for a different set of women who are culturally typed as bossy, loud, demanding and unyielding and rarely read as anything but.

Given all of this, I am distrustful of anyone who argues against “choice feminism” or the idea that “any choice is a good choice for that person” because that is not the point. When people protest as you judge their choices against your standards, they are not claiming that no choice could ever be problematic. They are protesting because you are applying the standard of your particular experience against their very different experience. They are protesting because you are assuming that your experience is universal. They are protesting because you are invalidating their own experience, their own feelings and thoughts and desires, in the process. They are protesting because you are objectifying them. And it feels pretty shitty to be objectified.

(Cross-posted at three rivers fog.)

27 Comments

  1. I greatly appreciate the perspective of this post. As a cis-gendered white male, this point of view is not easy for me to grasp on my own. But your thoughtful explanation is definitely helpful. Thank you.

  2. I really appreciate and admire your ability to articulate this so clearly and well. This has really expanded my understanding and appreciation for the problems with what I guess could be called classical feminism–looking at things from a purely “feminist” view without examining any kind of intersectional issues.

  3. Thank you, amandaw. Wonderful post.

  4. Really good post. Ironically, when I clicked that link towards the end, my heart started thudding in a fairly freaked out sort of way despite that particular post being a good one. And then I dimly remembered that years ago, I had experienced some incredible act of disability-based dehumanization at that site. I can’t remember which topic brought it on, but the message was that disabled lives weren’t lives worth living and that I just didn’t understand that well enough. I think I had even thought that was a troll site rather than a feminist one for awhile, because of the depth of dehumanization that happened there. So it was really strange to see the author writing about the topic they were writing about. Maybe they’ve learned something. I hope. Because to remember repeated instances of that level of nastiness after all this time, it must have been something really unpleasant. (As I recall, it may well have even been instances of “Standard Feminism ™ understands the value of disabled lives better than you do.” I just wish I remembered better what happened. Or maybe I don’t.)

  5. You make a lot of really good points. I’d like to point out, however, that it’s entirely possible to understand that human beings have a lot of different experiences, and react to those experiences with a lot of different needs and ways of satisfying those needs, while also understanding that individual choices can be politically problematic. That’s not objectification or erasure; that’s a recognition that life is complicated for everyone.

  6. Laughingrat, I’m not sure what you think you are refuting. The post is quite clear, I thought, that when examined on a political basis, individual choices can be symptomatic of a bad system. The problem is by what system we evaluate those choices. Currently, we evaluate them based on a framework built entirely and exclusively around the dominant experience. That is what this post attempts to point out. Your conclusions are only as good as the assumptions that go into them; when your starting point is not consciously integrative of the broad range of human experience, but rather limited to the perspective of the most elite group of women — your conclusions are going to end up being not only ridiculously out-of-line with the majority of women’s actual lived experiences, but also potentially (and most often, in effect) oppressive.

    I know it is hard for us to grasp, because our social experience is so intensely saturated with dominant narratives and framework, so that even when we ourselves are nondominant in one way or another, we are unconsciously evaluating things based on that dominant perspective. Opportunities to take in one’s own experience without the dominant narratives imposing themselves on it are vanishingly small in our lives. I just want people to stop and consider why that is, and how our activism can often reinforce it.

  7. I thought these were good thoughts, although I’m not sure if the title is meant to be literal or sarcastic.

  8. Amazing post, amandaw. You articulated what I’ve been trying to articulate for a long time.

  9. I read it as both, hsofia — the paragraph I could write about the trans girl’s experiences and how almost none of what mainstream feminism has to say about women is relevant to her would get really long without someone else helping me edit. Even when said feminists aren’t doing the genocidal rhetoric thing some like to engage in. We are very much objectified by feminism.

    Which would be a reason I haven’t called myself a feminist for a while. (Despite what some have said, I was not quick to discard the label. It took a while.) “Woman-focused social justice activism” is a bit of a finger-tangle but less corrosive to what passes for my soul.
    .-= kaninchenzero´s last blog ..Re: Trust Me =-.

  10. This is a really great post. I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable with the way that “choice feminism” is presented, but I couldn’t quite articulate why I felt that way. You’ve really wonderfully explained that the problem with this perspective is that it assumes only one type of woman exists and/or matters. Thank you for writing this!

  11. The idea that anything could be ‘anti-feminist’ has never set well with me, and I think this post can help me finally clearly articulate why. To me, declaring any action ‘anti-feminist’ is continuing to allow patriarchy to dictate your behaviour–even though you’re going against the grain rather than with it, you’re still saying “because society expects this, women should…..”

    For me, choice and freedom are central to my world-view. It isn’t about what a woman chooses to do, it’s about how much freedom she truly has to do as she pleases. As you’ve well demonstrated, the kinds of freedoms different women are trying to work towards are different*. When I hear someone say that such-and-such isn’t feminist, I feel like they’re missing the point. It isn’t about what women choose to do, it’s about them actually HAVING those choices in the first place.

    *And another thank you, from someone who’s been way too sheltered in life. My ideology comes partly from knowing that everyone has different circumstances, but I’ve had very little exposure to people outside of my slice of the socio-economic spectrum. Posts like this are why I come here–thank you for helping me understand the worlds of others a little bit better.

  12. Thank you for writing this. Patriarchy is not the only dominant syste.

  13. As a white, cis, very invisibly disabled woman in a historically non-gender typical job, I hit the cross roads of this a lot. In a job interview I’m constantly wondering, “am I being feminine enough, am I being too feminine, do I talk about my disability or not, and if so how?” I’m stuck in a mire of catch-22’s because the system as a whole, and especially the one in which I work, is stuck in an intrepretive framework that is not mine.
    Thank you. I’ve been trying to articulate that for months.

  14. Wow. Excellent. Thanks for this post. I’ll keep reading your stuff. Glad to’ve found it!

  15. Actually, sensible shoes and baggy desexualized clothing might be clearly problematic for a different set of women who have been historically deprived of their right to any sexuality.

    For some trans women, wearing sensible shoes and baggy desexualized clothing and no makeup can be fine. I sort of do though I defy anyone to explain to me just what is sensible about big stompy steel-toed twenty-four-hole combat boots. Is it just that they don’t have much in the way of heels? For all of us being told we have to dress thus or we are killing the women’s movement provokes any number of reactions, including disappointment, anger, contempt, rejection of this movement that has rejected us, and being triggered by having to add yet another to the uncountable number of times we’ve been told our gender expression was not allowed.

    For some trans women, wearing sensible shoes and baggy desexualized clothing and no makeup can be dangerous. The visual cues of femininity are also protective and help us navigate a transphobic world, to be perceived as cis when we need to be. Without those perceptions we risk everything from discrimination to verbal abuse to assault to murder.

    As activists we aren’t even working towards the same goals yet. The pro-choice thing is illuminating: absolutely access to abortion services and contraception is important for every person who has an uterus and all the bits attached thereto. Many of us have not gotten to the point where that’s the most pressing reproductive injustice though. Permanent sterilization and administration of birth control without the person’s knowledge or consent still happens. Queer and/or trans* people (in much of the US; I hope this isn’t the case elsewhere) often find it impossible to participate in the foster care system or to adopt. When those issues are addressed, abortion access will be more important.

    Many mainstream feminists decry — and rightly so — the dearth of women in executive positions in corporations. Trans* activists are still trying to get antidiscrimination laws passed so it won’t be legal to fire us just for being trans*. Not that it’s hard for a company to fire you if they want to get rid of you; a manufactured pretext works just fine. And can contribute to a person’s growing clinical paranoia. (Why yes, I do know from personal experience and it was sort of because I was trans*. Actually it was because there were rumors going around the office that I was and was planning to transition and it was causing disruptions. My performance evaluations had been, until then, outstanding. The next one was dismal and said my communication skills needed drastic improvement and put me on ninety days probation. Shockingly my communication skills were not seen to have improved sufficiently and I was invited to resign.)

    We’re at different stages on the hierarchy of needs I think. And instead of treading on our fingers I would hope mainstream feminism would be reaching down to give us a hand up.
    .-= kaninchenzero´s last blog ..Re: Trust Me =-.

  16. I strongly disagree with this post – so much it’s leaving me shaking, so apologies if this does not sound coherent… It is actually my experiences as a queer disabled women (although I am indeed white, cis, and middle class) that have made me strongly disagree with “choice feminism”, although not remotely in the way you present it. (For the record, all of the above assertions you make about these feminists believing all women are oversexualized and meant to be demure are beliefs I think are totally ridiculous, and go wildly against my version of feminism. I agree entirely with your post that women have very different needs and experiences of oppression, which is precisely why I cannot believe in “choice feminism”.)

    “Choice” as a concept has a large number of problems, the most relevant to me being that it involves a conception of selfhood that is, in my mind, incoherent and based on isolation from one another. To believe in choice, we ultimately have to believe in a bunch of Western humanist ideas about what an individual is, all of which make no sense to me as someone who has changed and grown throughout my life. Especially as a disabled woman, I see all the time how my environment can dictate my life (for an easy example, I walk outside and the sun is shining too brightly and boom! migraine!), and I just cannot buy into Western humanist individualism.

    Second of all, “choice feminism” seems like it is promoting diversity, because it is respecting all choices, but I see it as the absolute antithesis of diversity – it is simply bland multiculturalism, which standardizes and subsumes all real diversity. If we will have real diversity, we have to recognize conflicts and real differences. “Choice feminism” at its core denies us even the ability to allow for different conceptions of selfhood, different beliefs in the very nature of who people are. It subsumes all potential diversity into one simple, coherent, all-consuming ideology – and that, to me, is the very opposite of what feminism should be about. What frightens me about “choice feminism” is that there is no way out, nothing beyond it, no discussion or debate or critical thinking that doesn’t bring us back around to choice. I am not a fan of All-Consuming Theories of Everything, which is essentially what “choice” becomes.

    Sorry this was so long, it is just a topic I feel very strongly about.

  17. I’m very glad to have read this. I don’t have to agree with all of it to get your point, and to be damn glad someone is making it.

    I’ve been guilty of this in the past. And, without understanding what I was trying to avoid, I’ve been trying to avoid screwing up like this in the present. Having it articulated like this will make it easier to deal with people from their own context, and not try to deal with them from my perspective, or from my uninformed ideas of what their lives are like.

    I am a privileged person in several major ways, and not privileged in other ways, most of them minor. I have, however, experienced the paradox of “Women are supposed to be XYZ, except for You People, who should NEVER XYZ because (insert incredibly insulting generalization here). And now I have both an explanation for why that makes me so *angry*, and an explicit connection drawn between that and behaviors I myself have engaged in that fit the same pattern, no doubt making other people really angry.

    I will try to stop that, and I think reading this will help with that.

  18. This perfectly sums up my issues with feminism. I’ve learned that just because someone is a feminist doesn’t mean she’ll, say, remember my queerness when she talks about relationships, or remember my disability when she talks about healthcare. Many of the women whose work and writing inspire me most have disavowed feminism…and that says something about the movement, I think.

  19. icybear, no one has said that every choice any woman makes is completely awesome and totally feminist and advances women’s freedom. What we are saying is that the frames constructed by mainstream feminism depend on definitions of womanhood, femininity, and oppression that have no relevance whatsoever to many women’s lives. Yet those same feminists claim to represent us all, claim to be able to define what is and what is not harmful to us all, and want us to work in support of them without ever acknowledging the bigotry and supremacy in their movement or working to advance issues important to us.

    And no one’s saying “choice feminism” is the awesomest thing ever either. Of course we are constrained by our physical social economic environments. We never have complete freedom of choice. Often we have only shitty options available and it’s really difficult to figure out which might be least shitty. It’s just the term used to denigrate us when we point out that, forex, claiming that the feminist thing to do when a cis woman marries a cis man is to keep the last name she had before she was married. That this claim erases the experiences and needs of a great many women and tells them they are harming women for having done so. This is when they start talking about “choice feminism.”

    And seriously, you’re calling a group of people working together to run a social-justice-oriented blog individualists? Do engage the text, please.
    .-= kaninchenzero´s last blog ..Re: Trust Me =-.

  20. Great post, and really eye-opening for me as someone who has (embarrassingly) engaged in this kind of objectification of other feminists. Thanks.

  21. thehyacinthgirl

    I agree that the priorities and discourse of mainstream feminism exclude many women. As a queer woman with multiple disabilities, and a former sex worker, I have experienced this.

    However, I was under the impression that the *problem* with “choice feminism” is that certain (privileged) women have more choices than others. For instance: White, thin, middle class sex-workers may have more choices in terms of clients, location, and specific activities performed. Immigrant, working-class woman of color, or those who do not fit conventional standards of beauty often have less. Abled women and those in heterosexual marriages have more choices/opportunities when it comes to adopting children than lesbians or disabled women do. Women with class privilege can decide whether they wish to participate in expensive beauty rituals, while poor women cannot. Etc, etc.

    My argument against choice feminism has always been, do all women have equal access to such choices? To me, the very idea of choice itself implies privilege.

  22. Just FYI, people, I have had a total of about 3 hours online since Sunday when I put this post up. There are a few comments still in mod because I haven’t had the energy to read them. I’d like to remind everyone of our comments policy, which mentions that moderation takes time. I am working full-time with a disability and that means I don’t have much energy to spare online during the work week. I will attend to this thread when time and energy permits; in the meantime, please be patient.

  23. If you’re wondering why moderation on this particular thread is going very slowly, please consult the comment policy, specifically this bit:

    “Please be aware that moderation can take up to 36 hours, as we have contributors all over the world and we often attempt to achieve consensus before deleting or allowing a contentious comment. The moderator responsible for the post in question may also be away or indisposed, in which case you may see comments going up while yours is held in moderation because those comments are deemed acceptable by other moderators, but your comment is waiting for the attention of the original author.”

    This isn’t about any of the comments sitting in moderation right now, just a reminder that the author of this post is a disabled woman who has not had the spoons to get back into the comments and moderate them as she finds appropriate.

  24. Excellent points. The misguided approach of some feminists who treat women as a homogeneous group has been exposed by some writers – just as the problem of treating disabled people as a homogeneous group has by others. It’s still a dominant ideology, though. The voices of disabled women urgently need to break into the feminist movement. But that will only happen if non-disabled women choose to listen.

  25. “…I defy anyone to explain to me just what is sensible about big stompy steel-toed twenty-four-hole combat boots. Is it just that they don’t have much in the way of heels?”

    I could not resist engaging this, being a habitual wearer of combat boots. Mine have any number of things going for them: the steel toes keep me from hurting myself when I am tired and stumble. The soles are designed to have traction even when wet. As a bonus, the soles are also rated safe for working with live electrical circuits, which was a concern while I was still in the Navy but not so much now. The tall tops provide excellent support for my ankles, which were grievously sprained in boot camp and one of which now rolls to the outside when I am tired. Because of the way they’re made, it’s easy to find insoles for them that give me fantastic arch and heel support, which help in keeping my poor back from being any more painful than it has to be.

    My combat boots are, in fact, the most comfortable and practical pair of shoes I own, and it is a constant annoyance to me that I work in an office where I can only wear them on casual Fridays.

  26. Slave2tehTink, I totally agree with everything you have said about combat boots! All of that applies to my ten-hole (I have two versions of the same pair of Gripfast boots) boots. It’s the twenty-four-hole pair that come up to my knees and are not far from corsets for my lower legs and take me a half hour and a fistful full of spoons to get into that are not quite so sensible. I could have gotten some (not Gripfast and thus without the screws in the soles I love so much) that had a zipper as well as laces which would have made getting into and out of them much easier, upping the sensibility factor considerably.

    But with these boots I was, and remain, not interested in being sensible. 😀
    .-= kaninchenzero´s last blog ..Re: Trust Me =-.

  27. The first thing I said when linked to this was, “…wait.” The next words into my keyboard were, “Hm. Fascinating. Thanks for the link!”

    I’m not in a good spot to go in-depth right now, but I’m glad you’ve found a way to say in writing something I’ve been trying to articulate in in-person conversations with far too many people. This should be about as basic and obvious as… I cannot even think of something as basic and obvious as this should be. And yet I’ve never seen anybody else acknowledge this.

    Thank you so much.